There’s A Riot Goin’ On: Leiber & Stoller Behind Bars

It may seem odd that one of the most prolific and commercially successful songwriting teams of the second half of the 20th Century wrote almost exclusively comedy songs – and odder still when considering how many of those comedy songs take place inside a prison – but Leiber and Stoller were nothing if not original.

The career of these unparalleled songwriters requires a lengthy and voluminous exploration, which will not be attempted here. The abridged version is as follows: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were two Jewish kids who met while attending Fairfax High School and Los Angeles City College, respectively. They immediately bonded over their shared obsession with black music and culture. They began writing songs together in the early 1950’s with Leiber composing the lyrics and Stoller working out the grooves, harmony and melody on the piano. Unlike traditional songwriting teams of the era, Leiber and Stoller weren’t (intentionally) writing the Great American Songbook, they were writing the blues.

Their greatest earliest success came in 1953 with Big Mama Thornton’s recording of “Hound Dog,” later immortalized by Elvis Presley. Not exactly a “comedy” song, but Leiber’s unorthodox lyric style was already in full bloom.

You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog

Been snoopin’ ‘round the door

You can wag your tail

But I ain’t gonna feed you no more

More R&B hits followed including “Kansas City” (Wilbert Harrison), “Love Potion #9” (The Clovers) and “Ruby Baby” (The Drifters), as well as several iconic songs written for The King including “Love Me,” “Treat Me Nice” and “Jailhouse Rock.” Many would argue they reached an artistic apex with sophisticated pop records like “There Goes My Baby” or the magnificent Peggy Lee cabaret ballad “Is That All There Is?” – and perhaps they did – but it was with West Coast-based R&B vocal group The Coasters where Leiber and Stoller showcased the essence of what they were all about as tunesmiths.

The songwriting pair wrote and produced hit after hit for the Coasters, including iconic staples like “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown” and “Poison Ivy.” The earliest Coasters hits were recorded as The Robins, with a slightly different lineup. Each Coasters or Robins record found the group in exotic locals or humorous scenarios and, for some reason, often in jail.

On July the 2nd, 1953

I was serving time for armed robbery

At four o’clock in the morning I was sleeping in my cell

I heard a whistle blow, then I heard somebody yell

The intro to “Riot in Cell Block #9” is exhilarating: a wailing siren, rapid fire machine gun noises – heavily influenced from the cop-themed radio dramas of Leiber’s childhood such as Gang Busters – and a tight snare drum roll that bridges that 1950’s radio cop show feel with Richard Berry’s deadpan blues narration – like a tough, street-wise petty crook yang to Sergeant Joe Friday’s yin. Everything about the arrangement is perfection from Gil Bernal’s playful sax runs right down to the drum rolls on the fade out.

Robins’ lead singer Grady Chapman was in the real-life clink during this session. His run-ins with the law frequently left the sextet a quintet, fronted by Carl Gardner. Bassman Bobby Nunn tried the first vocal on “Riot in Cell Block #9” but lacked a certain swagger the songwriters had envisioned for the tune. Whether fortuitous or by design, Richard Berry was called in and his lead vocal took the song – along with the band and writers – to an entirely new level. Berry, perhaps best known as the man who wrote “Louie Louie,” was a fixture on the R&B music scene in 1950’s Los Angeles and is one of the most underappreciated artists of that genre and time.

“Riot in Cell Block #9” is so endearing many artists covered it over the years, with almost exclusively inferior results. Most versions seem to miss the understated cool of the laid back groove and instead turn the song into a non-descript, barn burning barroom blues jam. This is all well and good for what it is, but the genius of the Robins’ version is in its containment, its restraint, its “cool.”

None of this explains the only cover of “Riot in Cell Block #9” that not only holds a candle to the original, but just might surpass it. If the secret to the original’s success is its low-key groove and the in-on-the-joke authenticity of Berry’s vocal, nothing can quite explain the perfection in an atomic, unleashed, relentlessly rockin’ cover by a white, teenage girl from Oklahoma.

Then again, nothing can quite explain Wanda Jackson at all. The timid and respectable young lady became a fiery force when unleashed on a song. Wanda Jackson’s career covered, and continues to cover, a lot of ground, producing some of the best straight country as well as rip-roaring rockabilly records to come out of the 1950’s, or any decade. Equally comfortable singing tear in your beer country ballads or covering anything from Elvis Presley’s “Hard Headed Woman” to Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” with amped up gusto, Wanda Jackson is hands down the world’s greatest cover artist. That is not meant to be a limiting description. She has written and recorded a slew of brilliant original material, but her ability to cover songs that are so iconic so as to be deemed “un-coverable” is unparalleled in popular music (with the one exception of Jerry Lee Lewis who seems to be able to turn any song into a Jerry Lee Lewis original).

Here, the odds are stacked against her from the start. What could a sweet country girl possibly bring to a song about a prison riot? For starters, the locale was changed to a woman’s prison, and by the sound of things that woman’s prison gets a lot rowdier. If Berry seems like a casual observer, with his detached seen-it-all recounting, Jackson is right there on the floor with a stick of dynamite in her hand.

Speaking of dynamite, Jerry Leiber was notorious for being protective of his words. He famously expressed his disdain for Elvis’ “Hound Dog” because The King changed Leiber’s carefully crafted lyrics into nonsense gibberish. Leiber was right of course on one level, but he also missed a bigger point (which is a discussion for another time and place).

Jackson mixes some words around, but Leiber should have nothing to fear from these alterations. One might even assume had he written the song with a female singer in mind – which he did often and brilliantly – he would have made each change himself. After the initial swapping of “armed robbery” with “Tehachapi,” Jackson starts to sexy things up in a way only a female singer-inmate could. It all works, from adding a perfectly placed filler word or two  – “pass the dynamite Molly, ‘cuz man this fuse is lit” – to her irresistibly sultry “bang, bang, bang” right down to the substituted final verse describing the female prison population’s reaction to the “tall and fine” state militia guards called in to quell things – “all the chicks went crazy up in cell block #9.” Indeed.

Taste, of course, is subjective and it is a fun but futile exercise to say this or that version is better than this or that, but Wanda Jackson is the only artist to cover “Riot” who utterly changes the approach without losing sight of what makes the quirky thing work to begin with.

“Framed,” also from 1954, was the B-side to The Robins’ following single “Loop De Loop Mambo,” and Bobby Nunn finally gets a crack at the lead. The similar blues riff and jailhouse theme might lead one to think of “Framed” as a mere reworking of “Riot,” but “Framed” has an altogether different tone.  “Framed” is still light and comical on its surface, but here Leiber explores a serious theme that was a real issue for African American communities in the early 1950’s. Part of Leiber’s genius lies in his ability to intentionally explore these themes without being heavy-handed or self righteous.

I was walkin’ down the street, mindin’ my own affairs
And two policemen grabbed me, uh, unawares
They said, Is your name Henry?
I said, Oh why sure
They said, You the boy we been lookin’ for

I was framed
I never do nothin’ wrong
But I always get blamed

“Framed” is an indictment of the entire justice system from the cop on street right up through the prosecutor’s office to the judge on the bench.

I deny the charges of robbin’ the liquor store
Deny the charges of carryin’ a .44
Deny the charges of vagrancy, too

But when the judge came down, poured whisky on my head

Turned around to the jury and said

Convict this man, he is drunk

What could I do?

“Framed” has an infectious groove and some tasty lead guitar runs that would have certainly appealed to a young guitar playing high school student in the San Fernando Valley named Ritchie Valens, but it seems likely the message of the song also resonated with the Mexican American musician who grew up among a backdrop of poverty and discrimination in Pacoima.

Ritchie Valens always sounded decades older than his 17 years at the time of his tragic death, and his vocal on his cover of “Framed” suggests a man who has lived it.

About halfway through, Ritchie seems to forget the words, improvises a quick save and then skips the final verse about the judge and goes back into the chorus instead.

Well the prosecuting attorney started prosecuting me

Man that cat didn’t give me the one but the third degree

He says, Where were you on the night of July, 1953?

Man I was just home just a tweedle-a-dee

There is a very casual, off-the-cuff feel to this record. While I suspect Leiber must have cringed at the “tweedle-a-dee” improve, Ritchie owns it all the way to the end.

Leiber and Stoller would revisit the prison theme again in 1957 with Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock,” taking the concept to massive commercial and cultural success. Even though all three songs are pretty lighthearted on their surface, there’s something about the gritty chaos of the cell block riot with Thompson submachine guns and exploding dynamite or the frightening it-could-happen-to-you knowing of “Framed” that by comparison make “Jailhouse Rock” and its choreographed inmates dancing with chairs seem kind of frivolous. But Stoller’s half-step opening vamp remains one of the most immediately recognizable intros in popular music, and everything about the song is unmistakable Leiber and Stoller doing not merely what they do best, but what only they could do.

Matt Powell is a writer, musician, lawyer and entrepreneur living in Venice Beach, California. He has a Bachelor of Music from Berklee College of Music in Boston and a Juris Doctor from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. He is the guitarist and songwriter for The Incredible Heavies and The Sharbettes, as well as the co-founder and designer at Plecas Powell Design, a mid-century modern furniture design company. He often writes about music as a means to explore the interconnectivity of broader issues and themes.

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One response

  1. […] brief introduction to Leiber and Stoller from my previous entry There’s A Riot Goin’ On: Leiber & Stoller Behind Bars […]

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